Cirro Guerra: The Embrace of the Serpent/El abrazo de la serpiente (2015)


Native lessons

The first Colombian film to be a finalist for Best Foreign Oscar follows two ethnologists three decades apart along the Amazon seeking a magic plant in the company of the same shaman, who believes himself the sole survivor of his tribe. Majestic, striking, and precise black and white cinematography illuminates the sometimes plodding, sometimes shocking journey, which comments, often overtly, on the colonialist encroachments of "the white man" (which includes Colombians) into the realm of indigenous people. First we meet the angry, unwilling young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), robust and naked in nothing but a loin cloth and floppy things attached to his upper arms. Squatting on a river bank, he's approached by a foreigner, tall, bearded, and unwell. He's a German scientist, Theodor Koch-Grunberg (just called Theo, and played by the Belgian Jan Bijvoet), accompanied by his local aide, Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos), a domesticated Indian modestly covered in western clothes. It's 1909. Reluctantly, on the promise of finding other members of his tribe Theo has encountered, Karamakate agees to accompany Theo and Manduca downriver in a canoe to find the flower of the "yakruna," (presumably based on the mythical Amazonian water people the Yacuruna), which may cure Theo's mysterious illness. To keep Theo going, Karamakate gives him periodic blow-dart shots, delivering cocaine-like jolts, like the psychedelic shots that lead to spirit-animal awareness for Tommy/Tomme (Charley Boorman) in John Boorman's 1985 The Emerald Forest.

Next we encounter the American Richard Evans Schultes, the father of ethnobotany, in 1940 (just called "Evan" and played by Brionne Davis), accompanied solely by the still solid and muscular and still loin-clothed but older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar), looking for the same plant, but this time simply as part of Schultes' extensive studies of psychedelics and their relation to native culture. The parallel tales and personalities are very loosely based on the diaries of Koch-Grunberg and Schultes. In the 1940 segment the yakruna plant actually seems to be Banisteriopsis caapi, the source of the psychedelic drug ayahuasca, or yage, and Evan reveals he's really in search not of the psychedelic but a superior rubber for the war effort, which Karamakate takes as a betrayal.

In real life, Richard Evans Schultes did research on both. Schultes was more interesting than this guy (see the 1992 New Yorker profile); maybe Koch-Grunberg was more interesting than the wilting Theo too. But this film weaves its own magic. It also has its own agendas, which can seem heavy-handed at times when Karamakate repetitiously browbeats the two scientists for their involvement in their own personal studies, for their rationality, and for their reliance on "things" -- notebooks, records, a compass. Both scientists carry a lot of stuff with them, as scientists do. Eventually, in a moment that's more apocalyptic Herzogian poetry than ethnographic realism, Karamakate's nagging, and the ravages of jungle travel, so wear down Evan that he haas ditched everything he's brought with him except a little wind-up gramophone on which he plays a single record, of Haydn’s "The Creation." The real-life Schultes had great respect for indigenous wisdom and might not have needed the aging shaman's harsh brainwashing.

However episodic and meandering this film is, it still mesmerizes through its stunning Amazonian landscapes, evocative sound design, and the parallel, feisty conflicts between learned student and native master: both Karamakates are compelling figures, even if Theo and Even are less memorable. Their encounters with others are complex. It's said we hear nine languages spoken.

Both journeys are voyages through post-colonial hells. The travelers meet a mutilated worker in a rubber plantation who asks to be put out of his misery. They enter a Catholic mission where orphans created by the brutality of the rubber trade are brainwashed and mistreated. They can't do much to save them. The older Karamakate and Evan encounter a a dangerous messianic cult. Karamakate declares it as "the worst of both cultures. " They are menaced by guards in scary tall KKK-style masks with eye-holes. The mad Kurtz-like leader commands them to save his very ill young native wife. Even warns Karamakate that they can't cure the disease she has, and it looks like they may be doomed. Yet using his magic and his plants, Karamakate somehow simulates a cure, or dopes everyone -- Evan says he has "poisoned" them -- and they escape.

This is a study in immersion, with the white western victim-learner-observer-participant an ever-present figure: we're shown that he has been around in different forms throughout the century of exploitation and change. If the depiction of the white western scientists winds up feeling somewhat reductive, Guerra has done some serious study of Amazonian culture and presents some very specific indigenous lore, such as a concept Karamakate enunciates that everyone has a kind of alter ego wandering around, lost, and the evil spirit called Chullachaki. The older Karamakate says he has "forgotten everything," but later seems not to have: Guerra is alluding to the the modern world's wasteful, pointless eradication of ancient human wisdom.

Embrace of the Serpent/El abrazo de la serpiente, 125 mins. debuted at the 2015 Cannes Directors Fortnight and won that section's top award. It was included in dozens of other festivals, winning 11 awards and 10 nominations. It was a finalist for the 2016 Best Foreign Film Oscar along with Son of Saul (Hungary; the favorite and Cannes Palme d'Or winner), Mustang (France), Theeb (Jordan), and A War (Denmark), contributing to making it a strong field this year. Limited US theatrical release by Oscilloscope begins 17 Feb. 2016 in NYC (Film Forum, Lincoln Plaza) and continues the 19th in L.A. (Landmark Nuart), 26th San Francisco (Landmark Opera Plaza) and Berkeley (Landmark Shattuck), fanning out to over two dozen other cities.